Japan tests new Shinkansen bullet train prototype

The next-generation ALFA-X train is on course to become the fastest in the world. Testing will continue for three years, and the train is scheduled to go into use in 2030.

Japan's JR-East rail company unveiled a next-generation Shinkansen bullet train code-named ALFA-X on Thursday. The company said the €82 million ($91 million) 10-car train, which was completed in early May, had already reached speeds of 320 kilometers per hour (190 mph).

Politics | 14.02.2018

The company says that when the train goes into service on some lines in 2030, it will travel at 360 kph. The train is scheduled to be tested at speeds as high as 400 kph over the next three years.

The next-generation train will also be tested with two different nose cones, one that is 16 meters long and another that is 22 meters long (52 and 72 feet, respectively). The nose cones are designed to improve aerodynamics and reduce noise — experts say the train would emit a large boom whenever it entered or exited a tunnel without such a nose cone.

No limits: World's fastest trains

A German world record

By hitting 406 kilometers per hour (252 miles per hour), the German Intercity-Express (ICE) was the fastest train in the world. More than 11,000 horsepower was needed in order for the ICE to reach this speed between the cities of Würzburg and Fulda! But this was 30 years ago and a lot has happened in the meantime — with much of the action in Asia.

No limits: World's fastest trains

France takes the lead

But the German speed dream was short-lived. Just two years later, a French Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) hit the 515-kilometers-per-hour mark and "pulverized" the German record, as France's state railway still boasts today. In 2007, the latest version, the AGV, reached 574 kilometers per hour. As a rule though, the trains travel at a maximum of 320 kilometers per hour.

No limits: World's fastest trains

The one with the nose

The Japanese weren't just standing by the wayside, but developed one of the most iconic trains in the world, the Shinkansen, better known as the bullet train. In normal operation they travel a maximum of 320 kilometers per hour — similar to the French AGV. Incidentally the long nose is not just for looks but there to help eliminate the problem of "tunnel boom" when entering tunnels at high speeds.

No limits: World's fastest trains

China playing catch-up

But the Chinese also want a piece of the record pie. And by now Chinese trains are making it close to the 500-kilometers-per-hour mark. China's new express train Fuxing Hao ("Renaissance") travels up to 350 kilometers per hour between Shanghai and Beijing. It only takes four and a half hours for the 1,300-kilometer journey. In a few years developers want to average 400 kilometers per hour.

No limits: World's fastest trains

Germany puts on the brakes

In 1980, Germans built a test track for a magnetic-levitation or maglev train. This marvel of engineering was driven, guided and held in suspension by powerful electromagnetic forces. During trial runs on a 30-kilometer test track, the train reached speeds of up to 450 kilometers per hour. Billions were invested, but in 2011 the government stopped funding the project.

No limits: World's fastest trains

Fast and up in the air

In Germany the magnetic-levitation era was over. But the Chinese kept at it. The Shanghai Maglev Train or Shanghai Transrapid is currently the world's fastest commercial train in operation. Magnetic levitation technology allows it to reach an operating speed of 430 kilometers per hour. The 30.5-kilometer journey from busy Shanghai to the airport now takes just eight minutes.

No limits: World's fastest trains

A bee that doesn't fly

Shanghai is not alone. South Korea also has a new maglev train called the Ecobee. This urban line connects Incheon Airport with Yongyu which is 6 kilometers away. Opened in 2016, the government initiated this ambitious project in 2006 to show off its range of magnetic technologies; though this unmanned train can only travel at a speed of around 80 kilometers per hour.

No limits: World's fastest trains

Unlimited possibilities?

Not far behind, in Japan a maglev train is set to connect Tokyo with Nagoya by 2027. The train will float 10 centimeters (4 inches) above the tracks and be powered by electrically charged magnets. But this train will be much faster than its Korean cousin. The Japanese journey is set to take only 40 minutes, instead of the 90 minutes with the bullet train today.

No limits: World's fastest trains

More SciFi than choo-choo

An idea for a completely new high-speed transport system comes from Elon Musk, the founder of the space company SpaceX and the car maker Tesla. In his "Hyperloop" passengers are electrically driven in capsules at speeds of around 1,225 kilometers per hour in vacuum tubes. The first tests are running in California, but France is getting on the Hyperloop bandwagon too by building its own test track.

Read more: Europe faces China, Japan in high-speed rail battle in Asia

Arriving in Sapporo in 2031

The E956 ALFA-X (Advanced Labs for Frontline Activity in rail eXperimentation) was built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Hitachi, and will go into full service when construction of the new Shinkansen line to Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido is completed in 2031.

Fastest commercial train

The estimated top speed would make the ALFA-X the fastest commercial-service train in the world, surpassing China's Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, which reaches speeds of 350 kph.

France holds the world record for passenger train top speed at 574.8 kph; however, the amount of energy needed to propel a train to such speeds makes the pace economically prohibitive.

The only faster trains on earth are magnetic levitation trains — which operate without wheels — such as China's Shanghai Maglev, which travels at 431 kph. Japan is currently working on its own maglev train, scheduled to be completed by 2027. The projected top speed of that vehicle will be 505 kph.

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A source of national pride

Japan's Shinkansen program, which was started in 1964, is a source of national pride. It operates on eight main lines, completing more than 1,000 journeys each day.

Average train delays are less than one minute, and there have been no accidents on any lines since the program was initiated.

By comparison, Germany's Intercity-Express, or ICE, only reaches its top speed of 300 k[h on short stretches, arrives less than six minutes late 74.9% of the time, and has had several serious accidents.

Read more: Eschede: Germany's worst train disaster remembered 20 years on

JR-East says: "The development of the next generation of Shinkansen is based on the four key concepts of exceptional performance, a high degree of comfort, excellent service, and innovative maintenance."

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